Imagining the Life and Times of William Blake

Barry Raebeck
Barry Raebeck

By Annette Hinkle

East Hampton’s Barry Raebeck first met William Blake while he was a student at SUNY New Paltz.

Never mind the fact that Blake, a poet, painter and printmaker, has been dead since 1827.

Raebeck’s introduction to Blake came courtesy of his prophetic poems read in a college literature course. Though Blake lived and died wholly unrecognized, today he is considered an artist, writer and visionary of epic standing in many circles. Among his fans is Raebeck whose new historical novel, “Tyger on the Crooked Road: William Blake — Poet, Painter, Prophet” was years in the writing and offers a fictionalized look at Blake’s life.

The title of the book is an amalgam of two of Blake’s proverbs and one of his poems (including this line: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are the roads of Genius.”) Sag Harbor artist Vito DeVito, a longtime friend, created the cover painting.

So what is it about Blake that captivated Raebeck to the point where he felt the urge to write a novel?

“I think he has a distinctive voice,” says Raebeck. “He spoke to me in a way that was unique. I think it’s because his conception of the world and how to be in it is just wonderful. It’s so broad, comprehensive and so revolutionary. He was a person who absolutely defied convention. He was the freest of free thinkers, yet tremendously educated. He was well read, but with no formal schooling.”

William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757 under the reign of King George II and came of age under his successor, King George III. He came from a background of Dissenters — people who were politically astute, progressive and prone to criticizing the crown — which meant they had to be careful, meeting in places like taverns to avoid detection.

“This is what he grew up with,” explains Raebeck. “Blake was writing poetry before his teens. I have one in the beginning of the book he supposedly wrote when he was 12. Anyone today would like to take ownership of it. He was whipping this stuff out, drawing and reading.”

Recognizing the unique talents of their son, Blake’s parents home schooled him and at the age of 14, sent him to apprentice for seven years with James Basire, a renown German engraver.

“That became his bread and butter,” says Raebeck. “Over the years he did his engraving all day and his own art all night. He was really doing four distinct art forms and eventually combined them. He did engravings, he was a poet who wrote simple short poems and then got into prophetic books … he was also a watercolorist and a painter and would illustrate these books.”

“In terms of literature he’s best known as a poet. But when people see his paintings, they’re so compelling,” says Raebeck. “He’s pretty damn good.”

Cover of "Tyger on the Crooked Road."
Cover of “Tyger on the Crooked Road.”

While the Tate Modern in London has a whole wing devoted to his work, what Blake painted was neither religious nor allegorical in nature. Instead it represented a reality which existed only in his mind and was not easily definable by artistic conventions of the day.

“He invented his own mythology,” explains Raebeck. “He painted bold human forms, but they were deities. He had his own pantheon of gods and goddesses, demons, dragons and angels. It was quite dramatic.”

But it was not popular.

“I think the best example of how frustrating it was for him was when, in his prime, he set up an exhibition in his shop in Westminster,” says Raebeck. “For one year, his best work was for sale — yet he sells nothing.”

“Now those same paintings are worth millions,” adds Raebeck who notes that in addition to his literary and artistic talents, Blake had another, more unworldly, skill set.

“He had visions,” explains Raebeck who says Blake attributed some of these to his brother, Robert, who died at the age of 22. “He saw celestial beings and not occasionally. This was another reason he came to be labeled eccentric at least, if not insane.”

Fictionalizing the life of a famous figure can be a daunting challenge — particularly when that figure was not well-known in his lifetime. In researching his subject, Raebeck found all roads led back to “The Life of William Blake,” an 1863 biography by Alexander Gilchrist.

“He never talked or met Blake,” says Raebeck. “Gilchrist got his information from Blake’s acolytes ‘The Ancients,’ five or six younger up and coming poets and painters in the 1820s who sat at his knee.”

While Gilchrist’s book may have provided Raebeck with Blake’s milestones, it hardly pointed the way, which gave Raebeck the opportunity to connect the dots through fiction — linking dialogue, imagined scenes and historic events to create a narrative.

Instrumental in that narrative was depicting Blake’s character and morality with accuracy. A believer in God but a deplorer of organized religion, he fomented his own spiritualty. Raebeck notes Blake rejected societal, governmental and religious institutions that made people feel inadequate.

“He said, ‘Prisons were built with stones of law and brothels with brick of religion,’” says Raebeck. “That kept him from being more popular than he was. He was seen as a fringe player.”

But fringe players make for good fiction and when asked how he brought Blake to life in his writing, Raebeck explains it began with a trip.

“I went to London a did a scavenger hunt. I visited where he was born, where he was christened, the tavern he went to,” explains Raebeck. “I would sometimes just take an anecdote and create a scene from it.”

Along the way, Raebeck felt he was channeling Blake much of the time. While he did play around with dates and connections to link fictional elements with facts, Raebeck feels he has remained as true to Blake as he possibly could.

“I feel such an obligation to his legacy and spirit. I wasn’t fooling around,” he says. “I didn’t want to put out anything except to celebrate him. He’s flawed and makes mistakes and that stuff is as real as I can make it. I’m not going to say I’m the ultimate authority, but I think most people will say ‘This is terrific.’”

“Tyger on the Crooked Road” will be celebrated at a launch party at The Nature Conservancy in East Hampton this Saturday, November 2, 2013 from 5 to 7 p.m. Space is limited and reservations are mandatory at